Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 2) | Shakespeare Monologues Unpacked
Hamlet monologue unpacked

Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 2)

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This is the first of Hamlet’s 7 soliloquies and our initial glimpse inside the psyche of this troubled man. Dramaturgically this monologue serves to reveal Hamlet’s melancholy, and the root of his suffering. Here we see Hamlet quite literally wishing he could “melt” away and get out of this horrible situation he finds himself in. A quintessential soliloquy in the Shakespearean canon, this is a gift for any actor to tackle. I hope I can shed some light on how you might best tackle this monologue.

Context of the monologue

What’s just happened…

Hamlet has just had to listen to a formal speech from his Uncle (Claudius) who has just married his mother (Gertrude), only two months after the passing of his father (also named Hamlet).

In Kenneth Brannagh’s 1995 film version of the play we see this initial scene with Gertrude in full wedding dress, this adds to the drama of the piece, as it seems more unsettling talking about the death of the King, whilst at a marriage ceremony. I haven’t found a conclusive answer as to what exactly this is, as all we get from the text is that we are in “The castle”. We know it is a formal moment in the play. However, whether this is the coronation, or wedding between the two, remains ambiguous, but we are certainly given the sense that both the coronation and wedding have happened very recently. We can also see from the preceding scene the juxtaposition in Hamlet’s formal and restrained interactions with Claudius, compared with his seething disgust at both his mother, and uncle. I think we would all want to melt away if our mother just married your uncle.

Location: The Castle
Company: Hamlet, is alone.
Who is he talking to: this is up to the actor and director. It can be shared directly with the audience, or played more to oneself, or be a combination of both. Sometimes in an audition setting it is helpful to deliver the speech to one person, if you have another actor to work with. Though this device wouldn’t work in the play itself, it can be great for auditions. I find delivering the monologue to one person particularly helpful for new actors who tend to internalise their work too much.

Soliloquy definition: an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers, especially by a character in a play.

Full Text – Hamlet Act 1 Scene 2

Hamlet:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah, fie! ’tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.
But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she–
O, God, a beast, that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

Note: in the opening line the “solid” is sometimes written as “sullied”. This is a hotly debated argument among scholars, but I believe solid certainly makes more sense, tying it to the metaphor of melting. Solid is how it is written in the First Folio edition of the text and it’s my preference. However, always go with what has been provided by the director, or audition panel.

For more on this: Solid or Sullied

Thought analysis and modern translation

First of all, I always break any piece of text I am working on into thoughts. This can be seen visually by the addition of breaks in the text below. Many of Shakespeare’s thoughts run into each other, so here I have only made a few major changes which represent more beat changes rather than individual thought changes. Where he becomes more erratic later in the monologue, in lines such as “Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle” we can see the quicksilver quality of his thoughts. This is where the actor must not generalise, but instead move immediately to another thought. These thought shifts, however, should give you a starting point for finding the changes in the piece. I have also in red listed a basic modern translation to help you on your journey:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.

O that this solid/limiting flesh would melt and then evaporate into a dew.

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

Or that god had not called it a sin to commit suicide.

O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

God! God!
How tired, stale, dull and useless is every element of this life.

Fie on’t! ah, fie! ’tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Curse it! Curse it! This is like an unweeded garden growing wild.
Disgusting weeds control it entirely. (Literal: Excessively luxuriant behaviour – Claudius/Gertrude – control this place entirely.

That it should come to this.
But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.

That it should all end up like this.
He’s been dead 2 months, not even two months.
So great a King, was like comparing the great Titan Sun God to a half man/half goat creature.
He was so loving to my mother, that he wouldn’t even let the wind blow too harshly on her face.

Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–

Heaven above, is it only me who remembers?
Why, my mother would hang on his every word, as if the more time she spent with him, the more she wanted to be near him.
And yet within just one month – I can’t think about it – weakness your name is woman!

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she–
O, God! A beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules.

Just one month, or before those shoes were old which she wore to my father’s funeral –
Like Niobe (from greek mythology, who never stopped crying over the death of her daughter), full of tears, why she, even she-
God! A senseless animal that doesn’t have a mind would have mourned longer – married to my uncle,
My father’s brother, when he is no more like my father than I am to the great Hercules.

Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married.

Within one month.
Before the salt of those fake tears had washed out of her inflamed eyes,
She had married!

O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

O what unbelievable speed, to hasten with such agility to that incestuous bed
It is not good, nor it will not come to any good.
But though my heart breaks I must deal with it in silence.

Unfamiliar words

Resolve: transform
Canon: law, decree
Uses: habit, custom
Rank: growing in abundance, excessively exuberant
Merely: entirely
Beteem: allow
Frailty: moral weakness
Wants discourse of reason: lacks reasoning power
Unrighteous: insincere
Galled: sore, swollen, inflamed
Flushing: reddening
Post: hasten
Dexteritory: agility
Incestuous: canon law considered marriage with a brother’s widow to be incestuous.

Greek References

Hyperion: Greek Mythology – Titan God. Hyperion was the son of Uranus and Gaia, who went on to father the Sun, Moon, and Dawn; often considered the god of light.
Satyr: a class of lascivious, lustful, and drunken woodland god. Represented as a man with goat’s ears, tail, legs, and horns.
Hercules: a roman hero and god famous for physical strength and miraculous achievements
Niobe: daughter of Tantalus. Her 6 sons and 6 daughters were slain by Apollo and Diana/Artemis. She was then turned into a rock, but her eyes continued to weep in the form of a spring.

Tips on playing Hamlet’s Act 1 Scene 2 Soliloquy

So there you go. As you can see from this page, I prioritise one thing when working with Shakespeare – absolute clarity. This comes from understanding the broader story and what has immediately leads into the monologue and then of course the monologue itself. Hopefully you feel more confident working on this piece now, and have some clearer understanding of the text and the character.

Hamlet is like lightning. Famously played by all the greatest actors of our time, it is ones ability to flick between thoughts that brings this text to life. I urge you to eliminate unnecessary pausing and find as much drive and momentum as possible.

We also see this particular text is disjointed, with abrupt shifts happening throughout. Explore pace, range, volume, and pitch. What happens to someone who is dealing with so many feelings, without an outlet.

Another important factor are the relationships Hamlet has to the other characters referenced. The feelings towards Claudius are fairly clear, but Gertrude? Is he disappointed, disgusted, shocked, or angry? Does he think his mother was just using his father and is hungry for power? Were Gertrudes “unrighteous tears” all an act? There are many questions to ponder, but it’s your duty as an actor to come to the answers you think work. These are not the “right” answers, but “your” answers.

Another thematic element I noticed are the contrasts between the divine and the earthly. We see this in the numerous references to Heaven and earth, as well as using the ideas of “unweeded garden” and nature. Is there something in Hamlet wanting more, a spiritual release perhaps? What is his relationship to heaven and god?

And finally I wanted to mention Hamlet’s sense of himself. We see one particularly clear sign of Hamlet’s lack of self worth in: “My father’s brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules.” This feels to me a strikingly modern quality. Hamlet’s incredible self awareness is why I believe he remains such a compelling character.

Go forth and enjoy playing one of the greatest characters ever written into life.

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is Stage Milk's founder and site co-ordinator. He studied Acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and is now based in Sydney. He vaguely calls himself an actor, and unwittingly runs one of the biggest acting websites in the world.

About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is Stage Milk's founder and site co-ordinator. He studied Acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and is now based in Sydney. He vaguely calls himself an actor, and unwittingly runs one of the biggest acting websites in the world.

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